What Homeland Does Right

As tonight's episode reminded, the show only works when everyone's betraying everyone else.
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Showtime

Spoilers ahead for Season 3, Episode 8, "A Red Wheelbarrow"

How to rescue a once-culture-ruling show that, by most accounts, is now irrelevant? Easy! Ape the last culture-ruling show, Breaking Bad, with a bathtub corpse dissolution and the drug-den reclamation of a major-character-turned-junkie.

Kidding, mostly. The show that Homeland actually aped in tonight’s episode, “A Red Wheelbarrow,” was its old self. Certainly Carrie defying orders, jeopardizing everything, and striding forward Lone Wolf McQuade style as Quinn and the viewer shouted WHAT ARE YOU DOING? evoked familiar feelings. But even beyond that scene—which ended with Quinn non-lethally shooting our hero, in another sign that Season 3’s more interested in punishing its characters than vindicating them—the series tonight helped remind why, exactly, anyone started watching this thing in the first place.

Specifically: betrayal. As with, yes, Breaking Bad, the show's actors and writers know how to wring tension from deception. The question of why people betray and what happens when they do powered all the action surrounding Season 1’s investigation of Nicholas Brody, from the portrayal of the Sgt.’s radicalization to the drama engendered by his dishonesty at home to Carrie’s off-books obsession with his loyalty. Later, we got onto other topics Homeland doesn’t handle so well—the passions that drive love and revenge, mental illness as a reflection of deep-seated somethings, kids as reckless drivers, etc.—and the twists that piled up felt like tedium.

But tonight offered a parade of liar lying for reasons noble and not, and the results intrigued well enough. The central caper in which the CIA “flushed out” its own betrayer offered a web of high-stakes fakery: Carrie keeping up the traitorous act she’s playing for those traitorous lawyers, those traitorous lawyers in turn murdering the traitorous (and shlubby) CIA bomber. Intervene in that murder, as Quinn says, and you blow the larger lie of the operation—which, in truth, could have more devastating effects on national security.

Carrie stammers in the ambulance that something’s wrong, and she’s right; Saul, her mentor and confidante, has been duping her. We don’t yet know what he’s up to—or how he knows Brody’s location, his relationship to the Tower of David posse, and what this all has to do with regime change in Iran—but we do know there's a nice new note of tension in the show: For once, he’s misleading Carrie and not vice versa.

The emergence of Saul the schemer has been one of this disjointed season’s main throughlines, and it’ll probably end in disaster. The apparent success of Operation Javadi has given him swagger—demonstrated with him kicking Lockhart out of a White House briefing and with his newly copacetic home life—but the show keeps spiking it with creepy vibes. Remember a few episodes back when there was that leering camera angle on Saul as he gleefully learned that Carrie had been kidnapped? Remember Javadi repeatedly saying Saul’s M.O. is to endanger the people who trust him? As mentioned before, this season seems obsessed with punishing the characters, with making them confront the implications of their amorality. So while his obfuscation at the moment may seem like a white lie, it’s likely it’ll have dark consequences.

One of those consequences possibly in the making: The data thievery by Mira’s Mumbai man. Here, again, is betrayal on betrayal—Saul’s negligence leading to Mira’s infidelity leading to an apparent enemy spy in the CIA director’s home. If this guy’s working for Iran and gets the intel on what Javadi’s up to, the game changes in ways unfavorable to world peace.

Speaking of the Berenson residence: Homeland's latter-day haters—myself included—tend to act like the show should just stick to CIA machinations and ditch domestic drama. The truth, though, is that familial concerns sit at the heart of the show—note the first syllable of its title—and in Season 1 the Brody residence offered a lab test for what happens when the compromised consciences created by warfare come home. With Brody gone and the emotional effects of his betrayals made amply clear, the travails of Jessica, Dana, and Chris became predictable and tiresome. But now, we get a deeper investigation of the strains that spying puts on a marriage, and the question of whether the people drawn to the profession can ever make loyal partners. Mira had started to believe “yes” again, but then Saul blithely dropped the fact that he’s taking a week-long trip to areas unknown, and that old feeling came back—yes, betrayal.

Seven-hundred words into a Homeland recap without a single grouse about plausibility? To be sure, I’m not ready to praise this episode as more logically coherent as any other. But the fact that I walked away thinking through the thematic implications of everything that had gone on, and that I’m trying to guess ahead at where this all goes rather than untangle the crappiness of what’s transpired, might mean that for the first time in a while, something’s gone right on this show. Of course, don't expect that to last; by now, it's clear, Homeland is not to be trusted.

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

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